When we first began this blog some three years ago we came out of the gate with energy and enterprise but no particular direction. We were interested in the possibilities that blogging presented both in terms of interacting with the profession and its players and in priming the pump of our own creativity and research. But we quickly lost steam because what we discovered was that while we had energy we had no purpose—which allowed the blog to quickly become subordinated to other responsibilities whose purposes were more clear and immediate.
A few months later after some soul-searching and a great deal of discussion, I wrote a post that, while never widely read, helped us to better understand what we were trying to do and articulate our intended place in the academic blog landscape. It was a happy accident that spring conference season rolled around not long after and we were able to forge a readership among environmental historians that quickly blossomed into a more general higher ed audience as our posts varied from archival and field work reflections to commentaries on the work of other bloggers to think pieces on mentorship, peer review, research, writing, and teaching. That key post that launched our subsequent wave of blog productivity was called Portage Ahead. I attempted to recast our somewhat arbitrarily chosen blog name as more of a metaphor for our particular places in the industry—which while not identical, were pretty similar. It described the Stillwater River as a slow moving backchannel to nowhere which offered some pleasant scenery at times, but to the paddler represented a laborious few hours spent making very little actual progress, while the main stem of the more robust Penobscot flowed with purpose towards a more obvious outlet. We thought this nicely captured the sensibility of the advanced ABD and the recent PhD graduate cobbling together opportunities that really weren’t and facing choices between building CVs and actually making a living.
However, as we kind of predicted it would, the orientation of the blog shifted as our own professional situations changed. About a year ago something happened that complicated our originally articulated purpose: Katherine got a full time job! The Stillwater, it turns out, can actually lead somewhere if you navigate it the right way. Who knew?
Suddenly the things we were inclined to write about just didn’t jive with the trajectory of the blog as it then existed. But part of what makes blogs great is that they are fundamentally malleable. They can advance and retreat as circumstances dictate and as their authors and editors see fit. While the blog has gone quiet in recent months, the discussions that have always animated it have not. And what we’re finding now is that another interesting potential theme has surfaced.
Katherine went to work at the Barrett Honors College of Arizona State University where she now teaches courses in an interdisciplinary honors sequence called Human Event. She is also developing upper level honors courses in her area of research specialization—but these, also, are not technically or exclusively history courses. I have begun teaching at Unity College, which proclaims itself to be “America’s Environmental College.” While I did get assigned a history course for this semester, I was initially hired there because I had experience teaching sociology. I was hired to teach an intro sociology course last fall, which then blossomed into an opportunity to teach courses in an emerging core curriculum sequence called “Environmental Citizen.” This sequence focuses heavily on writing and communications and interdisciplinary approaches to environmental issues and problems. I was considered an attractive candidate to teach the “Environmental Issues and Insights” course because I had a sense of historical perspective as an environmental historian and because I had taught writing intensive, interdisciplinary courses in the Maine Studies program at the University of Maine for several years. That experience, no doubt, compelled the members of Katherine’s search committee as well—as we’ve both taught Maine Studies courses on and off for better than five years now. It also hasn’t escaped our attention that, while we both come from the same place, Katherine now works within the largest university on the planet, while I work at a place where yelling might actually be more popular than text messaging because it’s not actually possible for anyone to be out of earshot!
So it turns out that the things that have made us marketable are the things we have done outside the history department. And, from our admittedly narrow experience, the best opportunities for historians like us (those with solid training but an absence of alluring institutional brand names) and probably many others, are also appearing outside the history department. The department itself continues to scrape and grapple to sustain its very existence in the face of administrative consolidations and dwindling faculty lines that are seldom created and even more infrequently replaced. Humanities advocates write hand-wringing op-eds, the President backhandedly disses art historians, and aspiring academics shiver while followers of #altac multiply before their very eyes!
We don’t believe that it is the mark of surrender for historians to hold fast to academia while looking beyond the traditional department structure. Consolidated departments are looking for the more well-rounded thinkers and teachers who can meet more of their needs. Research centers are being created every week with applied and interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems. Many recognize the need for historical thinking. Others have an enormous need for it, but also need someone to demonstrate that to them. Historians can, have, and do insert themselves into medical schools, law schools, public administration schools, art and communications departments, climate change institutes, and any kind of project or initiative that purports to explore connections between problems, policies, people, and cultures. Every time a new “studies” field gains office space and letterhead, a new opportunity is created for trained historians.
Increasingly, these historians—ones teaching honors courses, freshman orientation courses, composition courses, intro social sciences courses, gen ed sequence courses (see Ken Pomeranz’s presidential address to the AHA), any community college courses, or courses in cultural, Judaic, media, peace and justice, American, regional, African-American, women’s, or environmental studies—are reaching more students and creating more historical perspective and awareness in places where its most needed, than those in traditional history departments. That’s not to say I think we should give up the ghost on the history department, but I think members of those departments and those who steer our professional organizations need to be mindful of this influence and seek to enhance it. This involves promoting a culture wherein we have to advocate for our own worth just like everybody else. The history department doesn’t deserve to die, but the notion that history has some sort of intrinsic value that is above evaluation, scrutiny, and critique needs to be eradicated. And historians need to enter the profession with a more nuanced, better articulated narrative of their own importance. And we need to begin to think about integration into other departments less as an administrative failure and more as an epistemological opportunity to advance historical understanding in places where we’ve so often maligned its absence. We may also need to think about some adjustments to the basic culture and conventions of our discipline that will make our professionals compare more favorably with those in other disciplines –who may have taught more, published more, and been more involved in garnering grants.
So Stillwater Historians 3.0 is all about historians in the wild! Historians who don’t teach history. Historians who might actually have better job security while lacking tenure. Historians doing jobs their mentors may not have envisioned for them. And historians who feel they can create greater historical literacy amongst students and other scholars without dragging the cinder block of antiquated departmental structures. We’d like to promote a conversation about how historians and their professional organizations might both support their departments and encourage them to prepare their progeny for academic careers in other ones and in new forms of administrative structures. The people who study change for a living need to be better at recognizing it and adapting to it in their own backyards.
We have submitted a proposal to the AHA for 2015 for a discussion of just such issues. We’ll be blogging about some of them between now and then. And if our panel doesn’t get picked up, we’ll use Twitter to convene that discussion in the hotel bar instead—since we’re talking about adjusting conventions, that might be a more appropriate venue anyway!